Inequalities in opportunities to participate in environmental decision-making and uneven impacts of environmental hazards along racial and socioeconomic lines are signature issues of environmental justice. Although not yet fully characterized, emerging evidence reveals that, in several regions where fracking is practiced, well pads and associated infrastructure are disproportionately sited in non-white and low-income communities.
A pattern of racially biased permitting was documented in the heavily fracked Eagle Ford area of southern Texas where a public health research team showed that disposal wells for fracking wastewater were more than twice as common in areas where residents are more than 80 percent people of color than in majority white communities. Since 2007, more than 1,000 waste disposal wells have been permitted in the Eagle Ford Shale region where groundwater is the primary source of drinking water. Another recent study looked at economic disparities in the intensely drilled northern Texas city of Denton and found that those benefiting most from Denton’s mineral wealth tended to live elsewhere, while the environmental burdens remained local and fell hardest on those who did not have a voice in mineral-leasing decisions. “Non-mineral owners are essentially excluded from the private decisions, as the mineral owners not only receive the direct monetary benefits, but also hold a great deal of state-sanctioned power to decide if and how [shale gas development] proceeds.”
Poor communities of color are disproportionately affected by drilling activities in California. Of Los Angeles residents living within a quarter mile of a well, more than 90 percent are people of color. In November 2015, civic groups led by youth sued the city of Los Angeles for racial discrimination based on allegations of a preferential permitting process and unequal regulatory enforcement for oil wells located in neighborhoods of color. Together, these differential practices have resulted in a higher concentration of wells with fewer environmental protections in black and Latino communities. South Coast Air Quality Management District records show that oil-drilling operations in Los Angeles neighborhoods released into the air 21 million pounds of toxic chemicals between June 2013 and February 2017. These emissions included crystalline silica, hydrofluoric acid, and formaldehyde. Across California, gas-fired power plants are disproportionately located in disadvantaged communities, as classified by an environmental justice screening tool developed by the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. Another study found a higher concentration of drilling and fracking operations in impoverished communities throughout the state of Pennsylvania as well as in localized areas of West Virginia, but it did not find differences with respect to race. “The results demonstrate that the environmental injustice occurs in areas with unconventional wells in Pennsylvania with respect to the poor population.” These findings are supported by census tract data in western Pennsylvania showing that among nearly 800 gas wells, only two were drilled in communities where home values exceeded $200,000.
Sadly being a child, poverty and vulnerablility all increase the toxicity of pollutants given the same exposure as the more fortunate and richer counterparts.